Communist North Korea, in the latest of a series of steps toward ending decades of cold war isolationism, released two Japanese seamen Thursday who had been jailed for seven years on charges of espionage.

Japan's Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu welcomed the return of the two seamen, whose imprisonment, on what Japan said were false charges, has been a major barrier to normalization of relations between Tokyo and Pyongyang, the North Korean capital.